stalking the wild sentences

David Allen, the stress-free productivity guru, is an excellent communicator. But he sometimes lets his sentences run wild. Here’s the beginning of a newsletter item I came across while purging my inbox. Its title, Stalking the Wild Projects, is a lot more vivid than the writing.

Perhaps the most profound result of creating a complete and accurately defined inventory of our projects is how it can propel us to do something positive and concrete about ephemeral and ambiguous situations that have our attention. We are all capable of taking dominion over every problem or challenging situation we encounter. But this doesn’t happen by itself.

Can we stalk the faults in this wildness? The 37-word opening sentence is clumsy. The language is unhelpfully abstract, with nothing tangible, no appeal to any of the senses. Some of the words and phrases are not earning their keep. The paragraph begins tentatively and ends vaguely.

One particular point of style jumps out. David Allen is very fond of pairs. He likes to group words together, connected by “and” or “or”. Note these:

complete and accurately defined
positive and concrete
ephemeral and ambiguous
problem or challenging situation

Noticing this tendency provides a good way in to editing the piece. Could these doubletons be reduced to singletons? Might they be lost altogether? This is likely, since such pairings are often inserted mechanically, without much thought.

Here’s the paragraph without any of those couplings.

Perhaps the most profound result of creating an inventory of our projects is how it can propel us to do something about situations that have our attention. We are all capable of taking dominion over every situation we encounter. But this doesn’t happen by itself.

That’s lost nearly a quarter of the wordcount—14 words out of 58. It’s quicker to read and it doesn’t fog the mind so much. The exercise also clarifies what’s wrong with the structure of the opening sentence. The main clause falters: “Perhaps the most profound result…is how it can propel us…”

That’s a major cause of the clumsiness we noted. It could be improved, slightly, by tidying:

Perhaps the most profound result…is that it can propel us…”

Perhaps the most profound result…is the way it can propel us…”

But really it needs a rework.

Back to the main point. Has removing those paired phrases lost something essential from the paragraph? It doesn’t seem to say a lot now. But it’s doubtful whether putting back modifiers such as “complete”, “accurately defined” or “ephemeral” will add very much.

I think the central points need identifying and the whole thing restructuring. For an exercise, you could try it.

Here’s my version. Shorter, and not a doubleton in sight:

We are all capable of taking dominion over challenging situations. One reason we sometimes fail is that we don’t have a complete inventory of our projects. Our attention is grabbed by situations that are ambiguous and for which we have no concrete plan.

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